Letting Go Down Here (Rom. 6:3)
by William Willimon
Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 5, 1986, p. 231. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized
Life is an uninterrupted succession of leave-takings and good-byes. Just when we begin to feel comfortable with our surroundings, someone or something dies, reminding us that, down here, nothing lasts. Sooner or later, we come to that stage in life when all the people who are worth knowing and all the things worth having aren’t here. No matter how bright the sun shines, "down here" seems a little less beautiful since their departure.
Death, decay, departure are unqualifiably bad news down here, despite Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s advice to consider our finitude as natural, even beautiful. "In my beginning is my end," wrote the poet: Or, as Augustine put it: "It is as when a physician leans over a sick man’s bed and declares, ‘He is dying; he won’t get over this,’ so on the first day of our life, one could look into our cradle and say, ‘He is dying; he won’t get over this."’ Life, even the best of it, is so -- terminal.
All this is terribly bad news if all we have is "down here." So we put the best face on it -- eat right, play hard, get as much as we can. Our materialism is so compulsive, our militarism so obsessive, our mechanisms of denial so fierce because in the myriads of little, daily dyings, we know the abyss to which it all leads. Few are as foolish as the rich fool of Jesus’ parable whose barns made no eternal difference. But if our possessions and bombs can at least give us some shred of joy today, before bleak tomorrow, who would deny us that?
The church’s peculiar Lenten claim is that in dying we live, that all who are baptized into Christ are baptized into his death. The letting go required of us in baptism -- that fearful sinking into dark waters -- is a sort of dress rehearsal for the daily dying which is life. So Paul said to the calculating Romans: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death; so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:3-4).
In this faith, we grow up by learning to come down, to let go, to release our grip on our claims of self-sufficiency and self-significance and self-perpetuation. At baptism, the church should be giving the child mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, not a kiss on the cheek, for he or she has only begun to die.
I have no idea what the philosophers do with this morbid insight. To me, pessimism and nihilism seem like the inevitable -- quite understandable -- modern response to the facts of life and death. If one considers the facts, optimism on the part of unbelievers is utter stupidity.
What the believer does with the facts, says Paul, is to embrace them with a curious kind of realism. When we were baptized, the church was quite candid about the transitoriness of it all. Knowing how we could easily spend our whole lives lying about death, the church got all that over with right at the beginning by holding us under the waters of baptism. Early, back on Ash Wednesday, we were told, "You are dirt and to dirt you shall return" (Gen. 3:19) At the beginning, we were assured that our things, our kings, our empires and our projects don’t last. The church pried our fingers loose, one by one, from these alleged securities and pushed us into dark waters, waters that (surprise!) turned out to be our womb rather than our tomb. Rather than falling back into nothingness, we fell back upon everlasting arms. Death? How can we fear what we’ve already gone through?
We find that, quite surprisingly, we began really to live because we did not have to. All the really interesting people were those who had somehow learned to let go.
Is Paul’s talk of baptismal dying too mystical? I posed that question to a group of ordinary, everyday laypeople in an ordinary Mississippi church. "Has anyone here had to die in order to be a Christian?"
Silence. Then they began to testify.
"I thought that I couldn’t live in a world where black people were the same as white people. When segregation ended, I thought I would die. But I didn’t. I was reborn. My next-door neighbor, my best friend, is black. Something old had to die in me for something new to be born."
Another said: "I used to be terribly frightened to be alone by myself. When my husband went out of town on business, I either went with him or took the children and stayed with a neighbor. But the night that my eight-year-old child died of leukemia, I stopped being afraid."
"Forgive me," I said, "but I don’t get the connection.
"You see," she explained, "once you’ve died, there is nothing left to fear, is there? When she died, I did too."
When he spoke of what happened to him on the Damascus Road, Paul never knew whether to call it being born or being killed. In a way, it felt like both at the same time. Whatever it was, it had something to do with letting go.